A study published this week says that we are 87% more likely to contract pancreatic cancer if we have two cans of soft drink a week (about 10 grams of sugar a day on average). But the current Australian healthy eating guidelines say it’s perfectly fine to slurp up more than 10 times that much sugar. Is there a problem here?

In the study, 60,524 Singapore Chinese were followed for 14 years (not literally, they were surveyed on their dietary habits). Their names were cross-matched with health records. Those who drank two or more soft drinks a week were much more likely to be among the 140 that had contracted pancreatic cancer in the intervening years.

Clearly the study doesn’t prove anything. You could drive a truck through it with questions such as “What else did they eat?” “Did they smoke as well?” and so on. But it’s not the only recent study coming up with similar results.

A 2006 study published by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden also decided soft drinkers were in significant jeopardy, and had warnings for anyone eating sugar at all. The Swedish study began in 1997 when scientists ran a dietary survey of almost 80,000 healthy people, who were subsequently monitored until June 2005. According to the cancer registry, 131 people from this group had developed cancer of the pancreas.

The researchers were able to demonstrate that the risk of developing pancreatic cancer was directly related to the amount of sugar in the diet. The people who said that they drank soft drinks twice a day or more were 90% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who never drank them.

It won’t shock you to discover soft drinks are not health food, but the study went on to report that people who added sugar to food or drinks (such as tea and coffee) at least five times a day were at 70% greater risk than those who did not. People who ate fruit jams at least once a day also ran a higher risk — they developed the disease 50% more often than those who never ate them.

As far as our bodies are concerned, a soft drink is a combination of just three things, water, glucose and fructose (the two halves of sugar). If water or glucose is the problem then we should all give up now. Water is critical to survival (if you like living more than three days) and if we were cars then glucose would be our petrol. A 2002 a study tried to tease out which food element had the greatest association with pancreatic cancer, and fructose got first prize.

The study conducted by the US National Cancer Institute identified 180 cases of pancreatic cancer from among 88,802 women who were monitored for 18 years as part of the Nurses’ Health Study. Women who were overweight and sedentary and had a high fructose intake were shown to have a 317% greater chance of developing pancreatic cancer.

Big Sugar’s response to the most recent study was as predictable as death and taxes. Richard Adamson, a consultant to the American Beverage Association (ABA), said in a statement “… soft drinks do not cause cancer … You can be a healthy person and enjoy soft drinks. The key to a healthy lifestyle is balance — eating a variety of foods and beverages in moderation along with getting regular physical activity.”

Well, he would say that wouldn’t he. You canna blame a man for trying (it on). After all, the ABA is in the business of selling soft drinks. The fact that he could have been reading from the current Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults is of much more concern.

The Australian guidelines say “Consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.” They go on to explain that what that means is up to 20% of energy intake. For an adult male eating a 2200 calorie diet, that is 110 grams of sugar (about three cans of soft drink) a day.

In Australia, pancreatic cancer is the fifth most lethal cancer for men and women. Every year it kills almost twice as many Australians as melanoma and the numbers are steadily increasing. It is also the least treatable cancer. More than 95% of sufferers are dead within five years of diagnosis (compared with just 7% for melanoma).

None of the studies on sugar and pancreatic cancer are conclusive on their own. But taken together, there is cause for serious concern. Sugar consumption is clearly implicated in a disease that (every year) kills almost one and a half times the number of Australians as die on the nation’s highways. And yet the people we rely on for nutrition advice tell us that it’s perfectly fine to consume sugar at 10 times the level that was a problem in the most recent study.

It’s time to wake up, smell the (unsweetened) coffee and act on sugar before we sentence even more Australians to death by pancreatic cancer.